hawks fans

32 questions for 32 teams

It’s here. In a matter of hours, real, meaingful football will be on your living room picture boxes, and you’ll be able to scream and spill things like it never left.

Not to be the wet blanket on that joy, but soon your team will lose a game (or several) and you’ll be angry. Every team — even the defending champs — has a question of some significance heading into the 2014 season.

So to direct your forthcoming rage, here are 32 questions about 32 teams.

AFC EAST

New England Patriots: Can Stevan Ridley stop fumbling?

There was brief speculation that Ridley may not make the Patriots’ roster, partly due to their depth at the position now after the addition of James White, but mostly because of his fumbling. Dating back to the start of last season Ridley has fumbled five times on 216 carries (including this preseason and the 2013 post-season).

Miami Dolphins: Will Ryan Tannehill spend less of his season planted in the ground, staring up at the sky?

After Tannehill was sacked a league-high 58 times last year, the Dolphins revamped their offensive line, signing Branden Albert and using a first-round pick on Ja’Wuan James. Still, losing center and anchor Mike Pouncey for likely the first four weeks could lead to some early-season pain.

Buffalo Bills: Can EJ Manuel figure out how to be a professional quarterback?

More than just the Bills’ season hinges on Manuel taking a step forward. The employment of both head coach Doug Marrone and general manager Doug Whaley likely does too, as new ownership is coming, and that usually means a thorough house cleaning following an unsuccessful season.

New York Jets: Can they stop a pass? Any pass at all?

After giving all the money to Eric Decker, Jets general manager John Idzik took a glacial approach to the cornerback market this offseason, eventually losing Antonio Cromartie. Toss in Dee Milliner’s ankle injury that will keep him out for at least one game (he’s flirting with bust status even when healthy), and here are the Jets’ starting corners this week: Darrin Walls and Antonio allen, with Kyle Wilson in the slot. The ugly tree of NFL secondaries.

AFC NORTH

Pittsburgh Steelers: How far will Ike Taylor keep falling?

Taylor was regularly torched last year, with his days as a premier corner coming to an abrupt end. There was a time when he could shutdown A.J. Green twice every year. Now he’s atrocious, and has no business even standing in the shadow of a receiver like Green, let alone actually shadowing him. Taylor gave up a league high 1,043 passing yards on 71 receptions in 2013, according to Pro Football Focus.

Cincinnati Bengals: [Insert proverbial Andy Dalton playoff question]?

I like Andy Dalton, or at least I seem to like him more than most. But it remains a fact that he crumbles against a higher caliber of competition. Over three playoff games he’s completed only 56.9 percent of his passes, while averaging 5.8 yards per attempt, and throwing six interceptions with one touchdown.

Cleveland Browns: What week will Johnny Manziel start?

Notice that wasn’t “will Johnny Manziel start?”. Brian Hoyer didn’t win the quarterback competition this summer in Cleveland. He was just less bad, and now with Miles Austin as his top receiver he faces a gauntlet to begin the season, starting on the road in Pittsburgh, and then hosting New Orleans and Baltimore before a Week 4 bye. Manziel starts by Week 5.

Baltimore Ravens: How much will Ray Rice have to share the load?

Rice dropped 15 pounds and looked to have far more burst in the preseason. But he’ll be gone for the first two games, and since Bernard Pierce is ideally suited for Gary Kubiak’s one-cut scheme, it’s easy to see a platoon forming between the two when Rice returns.

AFC SOUTH

Indianapolis Colts: Where you at, Hakeem Nicks?

Or maybe a more accurate question is: does Hakeem Nicks care about football? Yes, he’s been slowed by injuries over the past two seasons. But even with that taken into consideration, a receiver with Nicks’ build and natural athletic ability should still be able to score one touchdown over a season. He didn’t do that last year, and now he hasn’t scored in 20 games. If the Nicks of old can return (and he did mostly in the preseason), the Colts will have a bargain free agent signing, and a deep arsenal of pass catchers.

Jacksonville Jaguars: Chad Henne isn’t actually going to start for a full season, right?

All offseason we heard that Blake Bortles is the future and will be a stud of some kind, at some point. Just not now, because he’s still raw and needs to be brought along slowly. Then in the preseason he connected consistently, picking apart every area of the field while averaging 10.2 yards per attempt without throwing an interception. Chad Henne? He had a YPA was 5.0 or lower in two of his three preseason appearances.

Tennessee Titans: Can Ken Whisenhunt work his magic on Jake Locker?

New Titans head coach Ken Whisenhunt is one of the NFL’s leading quarterback whisperers, but Jake Locker may finally break him. Last year as the Chargers offensive coordinator Whisenhunt guided Philip Rivers to a season that ended with him being named the Comeback Player of the Year. It came after a 2012 season when Rivers had a yards per attempt of 6.8 (a low since 2005), and he averaged only 225.4 passing yards per game (a low since 2007).

Houston Texans: Will they have the league’s worst quarterbacks?

Ryan Mallett was finally traded out of New England after what felt like a few decades of speculation. That’s swell, and he’s familiar with the system run by new Texans head coach Bill O’Brien. But he’s also attempted only eight regular-season passes, a lack of experience that makes him difficult to trust once starter Ryan Fitzpatrick inevitably turns rotten.

AFC WEST

Denver Broncos: How much will Wes Welker’s absence hurt?

Welker is gone for a quarter of the 2014 regular season because he was poppin’ Molly, or something. For almost every other team that would be near crippling, and could lead to an early-season hole. But the Broncos are crazy deep, and have little to worry about.

Oakland Raiders: Will recruiting a 2009 all-star team work?

Probably not. The Raiders had the most salary cap money to dump on free agents this offseason. The main prizes they left with: Maurice Jones-Drew, Justin Tuck, LaMarr Woodley, Carlos Rogers, Donald Penn, and Darren McFadden (re-signed). That’s three injury-prone wrecks between Woodley, McFadden, and Jones-Drew, and three others over the age of 30.

San Diego Chargers: Can the Chargers defend a pass?

Last year the Chargers allowed 8.0 yards per pass attempt. I’m not an NFL head coach or anything, but allowing nearly a first down when the opponent passes seems bad. A first-round pick was invested in physical corner Jason Verrett, and Brandon Flowers was signed after being released by the Chiefs, with the hope that a still young corner will be better suited in a different defense that doesn’t emphasize press coverage. In 2013 Flowers allowed 778 yards and eight touchdowns.

Kansas City Chiefs: Can the Chiefs claw from behind when needed?

The answer last year was a consistent “nope”. During their 9-0 start the Chiefs repeatedly benefited from facing backup quarterbacks. But then when it came time to stretch the field with an offense that’s not designed for that (and with a quarterback who doesn’t do it well), losing happened. Though they still advanced to the playoffs, the Chiefs dropped five of their last seven games.

NFC EAST

Philadelphia Eagles: Do we trust Nick Foles?

For the record, I trust Nick Foles, and think he’s primed for another booming season in an offense that fits his skillset, especially after the addition of Darren Sproles and with Jeremy Maclin healthy. However, given his inexperience (only 17 career starts including the playoffs) Foles still hasn’t shed all doubts. He threw only two interceptions last year on 350 attempts, and this preseason he chucked three picks on 48 attempts.

Dallas Cowboys: Will they have the worst defense in league history?

Not likely, but there’s still a real chance the Cowboys will make the wrong kind of history this year. That’s a possibility when Sean Lee, Jason Hatcher, DeMarcus Ware, Orlando Scandrick, DeMarcus Lawrence, and maybe even George Selvie are taken away from a defense through injuries, a suspension, and offseason departures. Tony Romo may also set a regular-season pass attempts record, because the Cowboys will have to win games by averaging about 40 points offensively.

Washington Redskins: Will Robert Griffin III settle down in Jay Gruden’s offense?

There’s a lot of reason to be worried about Robert Griffin III after an August filled with incompetence, highlighted by a regular-season dress rehearsal game when he was sacked three times, fumbled once, and average only 2.5 yards per attempt. But let’s please go to a happy place to maintain a sense of calm, and remember that a year ago at this time the aforementioned Philip Rivers (he of the Comeback Player of the Year heroics) had just completed a preseason with a passer rating of only 48.3.

New York Giants: Will Eli Manning do anything right, ever again?

It’s much easier to have patience with Robert Griffin III as he learns a new offense, because he’s still young, and coming off a season when he was still recovering from major knee surgery. But as the Giants’ offense sputters through Ben McAdoo’s west coast installation, their quarterback has lost the privilege of patience. That goes away when you throw a career high 27 interceptions, and now Manning connected on only 48.8 percent of his preseason throws. The Giants could be really bad, really fast.

NFC NORTH

Green Bay Packers: What does Julius Peppers have left?

Peppers jumped from one division rival to another this offseason, and now in Green Bay he’ll mix in as both a defensive end, and stand up as an outside linebacker. If he can zap back in time to become the Julius Peppers of old, then the Packers will suddenly have a lethal pass rush with him lining up opposite Clay Matthews. But time usually isn’t kind to 34-year-old pass rushers, and he’s had single-digit sacks in two of his last four seasons.

Chicago Bears: Can they stop the run?

The Bears were horrendously awful against the run last year. With their defense decimated by injuries (most notably, Lance Briggs missed nearly half the season) they allowed 161.4 rushing yards per game. Some perspective on that gargantuan number: the second worst run defense allowed 135.8 yards, and in 2012 the league’s worst defense against the run gave up 147.6 yards.

Minnesota Vikings: Will Kyle Rudolph go all Jordan Cameron on the league?

The Kyle Rudolph hype started to build the moment Norv Turner signed on to be the Vikings’ new offensive coordinator. Turner has always been a tight end pioneer of sorts, going all the way back to his days as the Cowboys’ coordinator, and his time as the head coach in San Diego during Antonio Gates’ prime years. Last year in Cleveland Jordan Cameron had the second most receiving yards among tight ends (917) in Turner’s offense.

Detroit Lions: Have they finally found enough help for Calvin Johnson?

One would hope so, yes. Between Eric Ebron and Golden Tate, the Lions added two sets of talented hands that aren’t attached to Calvin Johnson, and they should both have an immediate supporting impact. Tate and Ebron will attract attention on intermediate routes up the middle, and churn out yardage after the catch.

NFC SOUTH

Atlanta Falcons: Can a young secondary take the next step?

A year ago the Falcons invested heavily in the future of their secondary, using a first-round pick on Desmond Trufant, and a second rounder on Robert Alford. As a lost season last year progressed and the Falcons were allowing 8.0 yards per attempt and eventually 31 total touchdowns, Asante Samuel was removed when Alford ascended to a starting role. He joined Trufant, who had a fine rookie season with 17 passes defensed and two interceptions. Now the future is here for the Falcons at cornerback.

New Orleans Saints: Can Jimmy Graham be effective against physical coverage?

After an offseason when the Saints loaded up defensively for another title run, the most significant question hovers over their highest offensive producer. Jimmy Graham does many things on a football field that should be illegal, but he was silent in two games last year when faced with intensely physical coverage. Once in Week 6 when Aqib Talib didn’t allow him to catch a single pass, and then again in the playoffs when Kam Chancellor limited him to only one reception for eight yards.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Can Josh McCown’s success in Chicago be recreated?

Lovie Smith has a serious man crush on McCown, and now he’s tasked offensive coordinator Jeff Tedford with recreating the brief magic the 35-year-old had with the Bears while filling in for an injured Jay Cutler. Over the past five years McCown has started seven games, which is a little frightening. But what’s promising is the offensive environment he’s in now. After he threw to three human towers in Chicago, McCown now has three different targets who are also all at least 6’4” (Mike Evans, Vincent Jackson, and Austin Seferian-Jenkins). That’s not an accident.

Carolina Panthers: Who is Cam Newton throwing to?

We know who he’s throwing to because their names are on a depth chart. But does he know their names? After a mass offseason exodus that saw Newton lose the receivers who were on the other end for 156 of his 292 completions, he’s left with Greg Olson, rookie Kelvin Benjamin, and then a whole lot of praying. Seriously, Jerricho Cotchery will start for this team. Or maybe Jason Avant? Or Stephen Hill? Yikes.

NFC WEST

Seattle Seahawks: Can they protect Russell Wilson a little more?

We all know Wilson can do scrambling, wizard-like things. But absorbing 44 sacks and 94 hits isn’t ideal for a smaller quarterback. Left tackle Russell Okung is healthy now after foot foot surgery, but he’s missed 19 games over four years, including six in 2013.

San Francisco 49ers: How far will this defense fall?

And let’s not kid ourselves, this defense will fall. No other outcome is possible when you subtract Aldon Smith for nine games (42 sacks in 43 career games), and NaVarro Bowman for at least six games, more likely half the season (145 tackles last year, with five sacks and two interceptions). Oh, and Donte Whitner, who allowed a passer rating of 66.8 when targeted last year.

Arizona Cardinals: How far will this defense fall?

In Arizona the Cardinals are dealing with a talent drain of their own due to an injury, a departure, and a suspension. With Darnell Dockett gone for the year, Daryl Washington suspended, and Karlos Dansby in Cleveland, the Cards are left searching for 14 sacks that have been shaved off their total from a year ago.

St. Louis Rams: Is Shaun Hill really that much worse than Sam Bradford?

Nope, which says much more about Bradford than Hill. The Rams will have to hope their strategy of assembling a front four that won’t allow a single pass attempt works. And it just might, because Aaron Donald, Chris Long, and Robert Quinn will turn opposing quarterbacks to dust.

Sean Tomlinson

About Sean Tomlinson

Hello there! This is starting out poorly because I already used an exclamation point. What would you like to know about me? I once worked at a mushroom farm, which is sort of different I guess (don't eat mushrooms). I'm pretty wild too, and at a New Year's Eve party years ago I double-dipped a chip. Oh, and I write about football here and in a few other places around the Internet, something I did previously as the NFL features writer and editor at The Score. Let's be friends.

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